Charters & Choice

We’re choosy

Mike and Adam celebrate school-choice victories in New Jersey and Race to the Top and worry about the battles ahead. Amber ponders state-mandated special-ed enrollment targets.

Amber's Research Minute

New York State Special Education Enrollment Analysis by CRPE - Download PDF

Jeb Bush at summit of Foundation for Excellence in Education
Jeb Bush pushed hard for putting the interests of children first.
Photo by Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/MCT/Getty Images

I don’t know whether his hat is edging into the 2016 presidential election ring, but I do know that Jeb Bush gave a heck of an education keynote on Tuesday morning at the national summit convened in Washington by his Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education.

At this annual bipartisan-but-predominantly-Republican soiree aimed at state legislators and other key ed-policy decision makers—this year’s was by far the largest and grandest of the five they’ve held so far—Bush pushed hard for putting the interests of children first and did so in language plainly intended to appeal across party lines. A later session, which I had the pleasure of “moderating,” brought much the same message from John Podesta of the Center for American Progress. Though nobody expects Podesta to vote Bush for president (or...

The new teacher contract in Newark has rightfully caused widespread celebration. It has earned praise from New Jersey’s governor and education commissioner, Newark’s mayor and superintendent, local and national labor leaders, and many others. There seems to be a consensus that a new day has dawned for public education in this troubled city.

    Chris Christie
    Gov. Chris Christie has shown that he is committed to helping Newark schools improve.
    Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The history of urban school improvement efforts suggests, however, that we ought to temper our enthusiasm. The roadside is littered with much-ballyhooed but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to fix failing inner-city schools.

But if reform leaders are willing to exploit the opportunity that lurks in the Newark contract, this could turn out to be a pivot point in the nation’s decades-long effort to reform urban schooling.

This contract is an enormous improvement over its predecessors: It reforms compensation by prioritizing effectiveness instead of seniority. It speeds the implementation of improved...

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), a top-notch group of entities that are serious about sponsoring quality charter schools, issued a call this week for authorizers and state laws to be more proactive in closing failing schools and opening great new ones. They call it the One Million Lives campaign.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Number of Ohio charter schools in the lowest 15 percent of state performance.
Source: 2011-12 Ohio Report Card Results.

At the kickoff, NACSA President Greg Richmond said, “In some places, accountability unfortunately has been part of the charter model in name only. If charters are going to succeed in helping improve public education, accountability must go from being rhetoric to reality.” He then called for a policy agenda aimed at achieving both smarter growth and stronger accountability in these ways:

  • Establishing strong statewide authorizers that promote both high-quality growth and accountability,
  • Writing into law standards for authorizers that are based on NACSA’s excellent Principles & Standards for Quality Charter School Authorizing,
  • Placing performance expectations for
  • ...

The Thanksgiving holiday may have drawn attention away from some noteworthy analysis by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which called into question whether states should mandate special-education enrollment targets for charter schools, as New York State has done.

Why? Consider what CRPE found when it compared special-education enrollment patterns at charter schools and traditional schools throughout New York:

  • Enrollment patterns of high-need students at charter middle and high schools are indistinguishable from those at school districts;
  • Whatever discrepancy exists, it’s found mostly between charter schools and district schools at the elementary level;
  • And there is variation among charter authorizers; some authorizers oversee charters whose special education enrollments mirror those at district schools.

In other words, CRPE argues, a statewide difference in charter and district enrollments is too simplistic of a comparison. But even analyzing the variation at each grade level is no easy task. For instance, why would charter elementary schools concerned about their performance marks discriminate against special-education students if state testing doesn’t begin until the third grade? Could it be that charter schools are less likely to identify a student as having special needs (as the New York City Charter School Center has suggested) or...

It is difficult to overstate the findings from CREDO’s just-released study of charter schools in New Jersey. The stakes could not have been higher, and the results could not have been better, especially in Newark.

Charter opponents will find these results impossible to dismiss.

But first, consider the forces aligned against the charter sector in the Garden State. Charter schools are frequently under attack across the nation, but the aggression has been particularly acute in New Jersey of late.

Critics of reform in Newark accuse charter supporters of trying to “privatize” education and worse. Nearly as fierce has been the assault from anti-charter forces in the suburbs.

Then there are the many powerful establishment organizations—membership associations and so forth—that oppose charters to the hilt.

I seriously, if unwittingly, raised the stakes in recent days. I pointed out the predictably dismal turnaround results from the federal SIG program, arguing that a charter new-start and replication/explanation strategy was far likelier to lead to more high-performing seats.

Then I wrote a piece for the NY Daily News, in which I put the Newark school district on notice, arguing that...

I had an op-ed run this morning in the New York Daily News about the strengths of the new union contract in Newark and what to do when the district is still unable to generate improved results.  The Economist has interesting thoughts on the contract here.

Evidently, Dr. Ravitch and I agree about something.  Along those lines, you might want to spend a little time on this New Yorker magazine article about Dr. Ravitch’s career development and her current views and activities.

Indiana’s high court looks at the constitutionality of the state’s new scholarship program (I spill a good bit of ink on the history of this subject in Chapter 8 of my book).  IN was serious about accountability, inclusive of private schools, under State Superintendent Tony Bennett.  I hope that the court will take that into account…and that Bennett’s successor is similarly inclined.

BIG aspirations in Cleveland.  The city has very far to go.  I’d love to see city leaders take a new approach.

Great example from Washington, D.C. of how a charter sector can methodically replace an urban...

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program remains perhaps the most scrutinized voucher initiative of its kind, so it’s not surprising that it finally got a “review” from the Washington Post, and not a very positive one at that. The Post team determined that the program is subject to few quality controls and asserted that “the government has no say over curriculum, quality or management,” despite the fact that some schools collect more than 90 percent of their revenues from the voucher program.

Of course, governments have little to no say over the curricula at any private school that participates in any of the voucher and tax-credit-scholarship programs that exist presently in fifteen states—as well they shouldn’t. But some state governments have, in recent years, held their voucher programs to account for producing decent results, and that’s where the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program has fallen short.

Private schools that participate in the D.C. program must provide parents with the academic progress of their own children along with the aggregate performance of their children’s grade-level peers, but that’s as far as school-level disclosure goes. Students receiving vouchers must take standardized tests every year, but their results are not made public; they...

Terry Ryan, Fordham’s Vice President for Ohio Programs and Policy, penned a thoughtful comparison between the social narrative in which Mike Petrilli’s latest book The Diverse Schools Dilemma belongs and that in which the Ohio team’s new report on Student Nomads: Mobility in Ohio’s Schools fits. The parents who face the diverse schools dilemma are “socially-conscious middle-class parents” who wish for diverse and high-performing schools. The parents of “student nomads,” however, are—first and foremost—“struggling to simply find a permanent place to live.” To read more, click here for Terry Ryan’s post in today’s Flypaper.

Diverse schools

My colleague Mike Petrilli has written a fantastic book in The Diverse Schools Dilemma. It chronicles the struggles, tensions, and emotions that he and his wife experienced in trying to find diverse, yet high-performing, elementary schools for their two boys in the D.C. metro area.  Mike’s dilemma is one shared by many socially-conscious middle-class parents: How can we provide a great education for our own kids while at the same time supporting schools that serve a diverse (economically, socially, and racially) group of students? And the greatest show of support you can give a school is to deliberately entrust your own children to it.

As Mike documents, this is not an easy dilemma to resolve; sometimes the chosen path is filled with doubt, even regrets.

As I read Mike’s book, I kept thinking to myself how I wished all parents gave as much thought and concern to choosing where to send their kids to school as did he and his wife. If this were the case, there would be little need for education reformers—which...